Catching up: Afghanistan

I’m sorry to keep repeating myself, but I’m trying to get back to some regular blogging after an extended break. But in order to do that, I’ve got to make some sense of what’s been going on while I’ve been away–for my own sake far more than for yours. This is part of a series of pieces in which I’ll try to do that.

The situation in Afghanistan: red areas are controlled by Kabul, white by the Taliban/al-Qaeda, and gray by ISIS (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

Chris Hooks, a freelance reporter and an excellent Twitter follow if you’re into that sort of thing, tweeted this a couple of days ago, and it kind of blew my mind:

The reason it blew my mind is because, you know, I follow this stuff for a living (though in my defense I follow what’s happening in the Middle East a lot more closely than what’s happening in Af-Pak) and honestly I wasn’t sure I’d read a whole lot about Afghanistan in the last six months. Then I started Googling for recent Afghanistan news stories, and really didn’t find much, so I’m pretty sure it’s not me. Plus NPR seems to back me up:

We’re hearing a lot less about Afghanistan these days, but the longest war in American history is not over. The U.S. still has nearly 10,000 military personnel in Afghanistan, where their mission is now focused on training and assisting Afghan troops, who’ve taken the lead in fighting the Taliban.

Why are we hearing less, though? My suspicion is that, like “ISIS bombs Baghdad,” “Taliban surges in Afghanistan” has become a “dog bites man” story for an American media that is lousy at covering foreign news on the best of days, and is really collectively tired of reporting bad news from America’s two never-ending war zones. And in this case I mean “never-ending” literally; American forces aren’t leaving Afghanistan anytime in the foreseeable future.

What the decline in Afghanistan coverage does not mean, however, is that there’s nothing going on in Afghanistan, where fighting led to a record high of 11,002 civilian casualties (killed and wounded) last year. The Taliban began their annual spring offensive, dubbed “Operation Omari” this year after the dearly departed Mullah Omar, in mid-April. Spring always brings an uptick in fighting in Afghanistan, as melting snows open up mountain passes and allow the Taliban greater freedom of movement.

These offensives typically involve a mix of military fighting and terrorist attacks, and this year has followed that pattern. There’s been heavy Taliban-government fighting around Kunduz, which you’ll recall actually fell to the Taliban last fall for several weeks until they retreated in good order in the face of American and Afghan efforts to regain the city. The Taliban have also cut the main highway through Baghlan province, which means Kabul is cut off from major cities in northern Afghanistan like Mazar-i-Sharif, and are pressing government forces in other parts of the country as well. And on the terrorism front, an April 19 suicide attack targeting an elite Afghan security unit in Kabul killed 64 people and injured more than 300. The Afghan government blamed the Kabul attack on the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based insurgent group that has assumed a more prominent role in the Taliban since Mullah Omar’s death (one of its leaders, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is one of current leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s top deputies).

Amid the renewed fighting there has been a new effort, led by Pakistan, to try to restart stalled Afghan peace talks. Meetings began this week in Islamabad involving representatives from the United States, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, on figuring out a way to either engage with or destroy the Taliban. But there are a lot of obstacles standing in the way. First, there’s tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of harboring groups like the Taliban, the Haqqanis, and al-Qaeda, probably because Pakistan does harbor the Taliban, the Haqqanis, and al-Qaeda. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had been trying to improve relations with Pakistan under the assumption that Pakistan could be persuaded to force at least the Taliban to make peace, but he’s paid a domestic political price for this (Pakistan is not especially popular among the Afghan public). So he’s recently shifted his government’s rhetoric , declaring that the Taliban are “irreconcilable” and demanding that Pakistan take action against them (other prominent voices in Kabul, like “CEO” Abdullah Abdullah, are still playing good cop here and holding out hope for talks). For its part, the Pakistani government seems unwilling to give up on coaxing the Taliban to the table and is still pushing for negotiations.

But before the Taliban could possibly engage in peace talks, it needs to get its own house in order. Before he succeeded Mullah Omar, Mansour was seen as one of the most senior Taliban figures who was receptive to the idea of negotiating with the Afghan government. And largely because of that, when he was announced as Omar’s successor it led to a splintering within the Taliban. Fighting last fall between Mansour’s Taliban and the breakaway High Council of the Afghanistan Islamic Emirate, under Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, was bloody and destabilizing, and though the two groups appeared to have begun putting their differences aside in January fighting between them later flared up again. Another Taliban splinter faction, led by the now deceased Mullah Mansour Dadullah, seems to have gone over to ISIS.

Oh, right, ISIS is in Afghanistan. Unlike in Libya, however, the group’s Afghan arm (Khurasan Province) remains a very small operation that has struggled to establish roots in the country. This may be partly due to the fact that, unlike the Taliban, ISIS doesn’t have a safe haven in Pakistan and has been trying to build its capacity in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan all at the same time. A concerted US air campaign against ISIS targets in Afghanistan has also probably helped to limit the group’s foothold there. But its continued presence, even at a low level, serves as a threat to Taliban leadership. If Mansour were to push the group toward participating in peace talks he could easily see mass defections toward Akhund’s High Council or to ISIS, which would then make his participation in those hypothetical talks superfluous. So even if Mansour is still inclined to engage with Kabul, he may simply be unable to do it without risking his authority and the integrity of the Taliban as an organization.

I’m no expert, but I suspect that the Afghan army would stand a better chance of defeating the Taliban and ISIS if it weren’t for the fact that a huge percentage of its soldiers (reportedly 40% or more in some places) are either dead or no longer in the army. Some commanders have apparently been sending their soldiers home and then pocketing their salaries, while others have been unwilling to accurately report casualties and desertions for fear of being canned for their failures. Call me crazy, but an army full of people who aren’t actually there seems like it wouldn’t be terribly effective in the field. And this leads to perhaps Afghanistan’s biggest problem, the ever-present challenge of corruption (hey, David Cameron may be a tool, but he wasn’t wrong when he said this). Corruption prevents Kabul from putting an effective fighting force in the field to defeat the Taliban. Corruption allows huge swathes of the country to exist outside government control. Corruption, often really horrific corruption, continues to turn the Afghan people against their government and toward the Taliban. Ghani, to his credit, seems to really be trying to do something about the problem, though he’s had to be sensitive to concerns that he’s being too heavy-handed about it and to the challenges posed by the weird combo government he’s in with “chief executive” Abdullah (the difficulties of which are still preventing Ghani from filling his cabinet). He also risks undercutting his own anti-corruption efforts by making deals with narco-terrorist warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, though realistically it would be impossible for Ghani to take on both the Taliban and Hekmatyar at the same time.

While we’re on the subject of Afghanistan, it behooves us to note what’s happened in the investigation into the US airstrike against a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz last October. Last month, the Pentagon released the results of its investigation into the incident and, incredibly I know, found that it hadn’t done anything seriously wrong because the strike on the hospital wasn’t an “intentional act.” Presumably this means that the personnel involved didn’t know they were attacking a hospital, even though there’s evidence that the US was gathering intel on the site before the strike, and everybody acknowledges that the MSF personnel inside the facility contacted US command during the strike to tell them they were attacking a hospital. A few personnel (and maybe not even the right personnel) involved in the incident have been “reprimanded,” whatever that means, though MSF is still calling for an independent investigation into what could be a war crime even if the intent wasn’t to strike a hospital. May Jeong at The Intercept did an incredibly detailed investigation into the Kunduz incident in late April that is very worth your time.

On Tuesday, The New York Times published its own investigation into the question of whether Afghan forces misled their American colleagues into striking the hospital either out of a belief that it had been taken over by the Taliban or due to longstanding animus with MSF over its policy of neutrality (or perhaps both of these were in play). An organization like MSF couldn’t do what it does without adopting strict neutrality as a rule, but the NYT piece shows that there are clearly elements within the Afghan government that have interpreted that neutrality as support for the Taliban (their doctors do, after all, treat Taliban wounded). Afghan forces in Kunduz appear to have passed along a description of the MSF hospital to the Americans and misidentified the building as the local HQ for the Afghan National Directorate of Security. Those two buildings apparently don’t look anything alike, but the Americans, according to this story, didn’t know that. The Afghans presumably would have. While this narrative may be true, it shouldn’t let the Americans off the hook for striking a target without checking to see what it was for themselves, and particularly for ignoring or mishandling that mid-attack phone call from inside the hospital.


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